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Tropic of Cancer | Themes

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Writing and Art

Henry philosophizes on what it takes to be a true artist and writer. He notes at the beginning of the novel he only respects two of his writer friends, Boris and Carl, because they are passionate and they suffer: "They are possessed. They glow inwardly with a white flame." Regarding his own writing, Henry fears that his own work is "literature," works in which the writers have censored their true thoughts and feelings. He doesn't even want to call this book a book. Rather, he calls it "libel, slander, defamation of character ... a prolonged insult, a gob of spit in the face of Art." Henry plans to write everything no one else will say aloud, and determines not to change anything he writes. By not censoring himself, Henry believes he can be a real artist, just by living as much on the edge as possible and writing it all down. He also believes civilization is dying, rotting from within. Art that is unafraid to plumb the filthy depths or rise to ecstatic heights will help revitalize a dying world.

Artists abound in Tropic of Cancer, and two of them become enamored of Henry. Mark Swift, the painter, criticizes his own girlfriend's paintings, which Henry seems to like, but Henry doesn't like Swift's paintings or sculptures at all. Kruger, a sculptor, allows Henry to stay with him, but Henry doesn't have much to say about Kruger's art that is complimentary. Henry saves his admiration for artists like Matisse, whose representations of the female body cause Henry to feel "immersed" in the very heart of life. He calls Matisse's paintings "poems" and says Matisse's Paris "shudders with bright, gasping orgasms" even though it is surrounded by a world that is "falling apart." Henry is transported by the way that the people in Matisse's paintings, especially the women "transform the negative reality of life" and "the consummation of death" into a life force. There is no machinery or science in any of these paintings, just beauty and vitality.

Sex

Sex is a central topic in Tropic of Cancer, whether it is sex within a relationship, outside a relationship, or bought on the street. Henry Miller begins the novel by describing what he wants to do sexually to Tania, a woman with whom he has an affair. He wants to show her husband, Sylvester, that she deserves better, but Henry also wants to possess Tania to demonstrate his own virility. He also describes the sexual proclivities of all of his friends. These range from Van Norden, who is addicted to sex but treats women as sex objects and sex itself as a mechanical act, to Nanantatee, who says he is not good at sex and has given up trying. Ultimately, Miller uses Henry's friends, and Henry's overall journey, to show how excessive sex can lose its value or darken a character's consciousness. Henry's character changes in every aspect by the end of the novel, with the exception of how he sees women and sex; Henry becomes more coldhearted toward and disconnected from women.

The men closest to Henry tend to be sexually involved with more than one woman at a time, and the way they talk about sex is similar to the way they would talk about any other commodity they would share with friends. When one of Henry's friends has a prostitute with him when Henry shows up, Carl offers the woman to Henry, without asking the woman. Miller never explores women's feelings and passions in the novel, and Henry, who rarely thinks about women's perspectives, believes he is a fantastic lover and any woman is lucky to be with him.

There are, however, a few exceptions in his mind. Germaine is Henry's favorite prostitute because of her passion in bed and how she loves her own body. Her exuberance about sex is so refreshing to Henry that, even though Germaine looks tired and rough in broad daylight, Henry still finds her personality attractive, which is unusual for his character. The other woman whose sexual needs and feelings are considered, even though Henry deceives her regularly, is Mona, his wife, the only woman in the novel who does not get called a "cunt." Henry pines for Mona in a way that does not solely involve sex, but love. When Henry thinks of Tania and wants her back, he thinks of sex with Tania, partially to lash out at Sylvester. But, when he thinks of Mona, it is with a broken heart and the hope that someday she will come back to him.

Sex, a powerful force in Tropic of Cancer, sparks an outpouring of creativity from Henry. The sight of a prostitute's genitals in Chapter 13 triggers Henry's lengthy monologue full of wild, colorful imagery about the relationship between art, sex, the death of civilization, and the renewal of life. After he has sex with her, Henry looks down at her body and feels a sense of despair and frustration, the impact of seeing the world for what it really is, "tottering and crumbling, a world used up and polished like a leper's skull." Without any true passion or emotional connection in such a world, there is nothing to hold on to, nothing left after his uncontrollable urge and action but "rotten pillars" and "festering humanity." Henry realizes that only through writing can he create a new world of joy and connection to replace a dead civilization.

Friendships

The character Henry Miller would die without the friendships he cultivates in Tropic of Cancer. Henry describes himself as plagued by loneliness throughout the novel, even though friends surround him; but he does recognize how his friends have made his life possible on a daily basis. He never actually pays for his lodging, staying at the homes, apartments, and even hotel rooms of friends. He also sets up a rotating schedule of meals, so, every day, a different friend feeds Henry and gives him a chance to get drunk. Henry says, "They couldn't do enough for me, these generous once-a-week souls." His friends give him money, which enables him to visit prostitutes. In some cases they even share the same girl.

Henry doesn't do much for his friends throughout most of the novel, but even new acquaintances step up to help him. Collins, for example, a sailor Henry meets carousing with his friend Fillmore, saves Henry when he becomes ill, even though they don't know each other very well. At the very end of the novel Henry finally steps up to help a friend when he helps Fillmore, who has become enmeshed in a relationship with a French girl who controls him. Fillmore, who had sponsored Henry in the past by inviting Henry to live with him, saves Henry's life by keeping him off the streets. Henry returns the favor when Fillmore has a nervous breakdown. Henry determines to get Fillmore back to his family in America. He spends a whole day helping Fillmore withdraw his cash and secretly leave for London, so he can escape the abusive French girl. However, Henry breaks his promise to Fillmore and keeps Fillmore's money for himself. So Henry's not exactly a trustworthy friend, but he does save Fillmore.

Friends influence Henry's creative and artistic ideas, and Henry is well aware of the influence his friends have on him. The idea that friends can be like an environmental influence flows through the narrative. Henry rejects friends when he rejects their philosophical views, such as is the case with Boris, a nihilist, who inspires Henry to latch on to romanticism and transcendentalism. Henry comes to see nihilism as "poison gas," and his entire mission as an artist changes because he doesn't want to be like Boris. In the end Henry doesn't want to be like any of his friends, and he finds his own creative voice.

Death and Dying

Death and dying are integral to Henry's world view in several ways. He sees Western civilization as a self-destructing entity, so the death of this world is inevitable because it can't sustain itself as it exists. Henry wants to destroy all that represents the oppressive machinery of the human race and Western ideals. He views the notion of people being cogs in the wheel rather than living free as a particularly American idea, and part of the reason he stays in Europe is to fight that idea. His friend Boris has the same cynical view of where the world is headed. He believes that "the cancer of time is eating us away ... we must get in step, a lock step, toward the prison of death. There is no escape." Henry doesn't feel bad about this tendency, though. He says, "The atmosphere is saturated with disaster, frustration, futility ... instead of being discouraged or depressed, I enjoy it. I am crying for more and more disasters, for bigger calamities, for grander failures. I want the whole world to be out of whack, I want everyone to scratch himself to death." Henry feels compelled to live "fast and furiously," which hastens him toward his own death. The way he lives puts him at risk of having venereal diseases, starving, or being too weak to fight off an illness. He thinks the people around him on the street are "already dead" because they are weighed down by the mundane, by poverty, by filth, and by people who keep them in their place.

However eloquent Henry is about death's inevitability and the fast track toward death the world appears to be on, he wants to live, and he doesn't mind doing it at the expense of others. After he goes through near-starvation and illness, Henry comes out on the other side feeling as if the worst has happened, and he has survived it. He vows to expect nothing and to live only from day to day, taking whatever he can steal: "I have reached the limits of endurance. My back is to the wall; I can retreat no further. As far as history goes I am dead." But for Henry, this is just a spiritual death. He elaborates, "Physically I am alive. Morally I am free." Henry's intent, going forward, is to do whatever it takes to keep himself alive, as if he were an animal, not a human being. Thinking in these terms takes a weight off of Henry's shoulders, because in having no expectations and no hopes, he can't be disappointed. In living each day as if it were his last, he doesn't have to think about his future death, just about keeping himself present in the world.

Poverty and Disease

Henry Miller is desperately poor, and most of the artists and writers around him are, too. They live in hotel rooms and tiny apartments, spending what little money they have on wine and prostitutes. Henry's poverty is self-inflicted, because he wants to write and will not take jobs that don't allow him time to do so. He occasionally takes on work, on a very limited basis, often trading housework for living arrangements and food. Due to his poverty and because he frequents brothels to sleep with prostitutes, he lives a very grimy life, full of lice, bedbugs, rancid food, venereal diseases, and other forms of contagion. However, he isn't willing to go back to New York and put himself into the work pool there, which he calls a soul-killing "treadmill." He would rather be poor and starving in Paris with his freedom intact than subject himself to the slow death of working and never getting ahead in New York City.

Much of the disease spread throughout Henry's social circle relates to sex. He says no man's sex life becomes real until he has contracted a "dose of the clap," meaning gonorrhea, and many of the men he hangs out with don't go to the doctor when they get the disease. Instead, they rely on folk remedies and shoot themselves up with a variety of chemicals to fight the illness, often not very successfully, so they spread the disease even further. Even if a man has a venereal disease, he might still sleep with a prostitute if he gets drunk and can't resist the urge, or he might transmit the disease to a girlfriend, as Fillmore does when he gives the clap to his girlfriend, Ginette. Henry warns Ginette she shouldn't go through with her pregnancy for that reason, as the baby might be born blind. Henry and his friends all talk about diseases as if they are just part of the price paid for living the way they do, and the grime and spread of disease involved in living in overcrowded, poorer districts of Paris is unavoidable.

Disease functions also as an important metaphor throughoutTropic of Cancer, whose very title references one of the deadliest diseases. In the novel disease becomes a metaphor for Henry's own attitude, for Paris, for time, and for civilization itself, which Henry believes is sick and dying. Tania, Henry's lover, begins to find him exasperating. She tells him he's "cancer and delirium," meaning he has a morbid, and therefore unhealthy, attitude toward life. In Chapter 9 Paris, with its degrading lows and ecstatic highs, gets under Henry's skin. He calls it a cancer that "grows and grows inside you until you are eaten away by it." Boris claims that "the cancer of time," which inevitably brings death, "is eating us away." And, the vomit, sores, and other bodily horrors that spread throughout the novel represent symptoms of a civilization in a death spiral. What Henry wants is to look at the world, warts and all, in his writing, and let it die, so it can be rejuvenated, and begin again.

Questions for Themes

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